Seriously, Mr. Abrams — enough with the freaking lens flare! Don’t you hire a professional cinematographer specifically for the purpose of making sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen? Do you really want your entry in the figurative Biography of Cinema Auteurs to read: “J.J. Abrams. TV and film producer/creator. Signature tropes: labyrinthine conspiracies and obsequious lens flares.” You know what’s worse? The lens flares aren’t even the worst thing about the film. The worst thing is that you made a remake of E.T. in which everyone’s favorite Reese’s pieces addict is the Cloverfield monster’s kid brother. It just plain doesn’t work.
First of all, Super 8 starts out as a film about film. To this end, it has some nifty scenes and some potentially great characters. Centering on a young boy who recently lost his mother, the film tells the story of Joe falling in love with the daughter of the man indirectly responsible for his mom’s death. More than that, it’s set in the early 80s in an industrial town, and this boy and his friends are all film geeks. They love Star Wars and Dawn of the Dead. It’s an all-American take on Cinema Paradiso, and there’s an undeniable energy about it that confidently assumes the posture of co-producer Steven Spielberg as he not-so-confidently moved into his self-consciously “mature” phase with films like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun.
Then a crazy dude smashes his truck into a train and an alien monster gets out. And these kids are still trying to film their amateur film in the midst of all of it. Right up until about halfway through the movie, at which point the story abandons their film-within-a-film drama and turns into Baby Godzilla attacks small-town America. I won’t pretend that Super 8 was a masterpiece in the making. The performances of the child actors, while ranging from strong to serviceable, were not masterful. Nor has Abrams yet developed the discipline to trust his instincts.
As choppy as Star Trek was, so are some of the relatively mundane domestic scenes in Super 8. An early tracking shot in the film, following Joe’s perspective (from behind him as he sits on a swingset) as he watches a car pull up and the driver get out and walk up to his front door, suddenly cuts to a shot of Joe’s face. This breaks the spell, the tension of the shot, which might have been more potent had it been held as a single take, especially when the driver (the man blamed for Joe’s mom’s death) is thrown out of the house by Joe’s dad. The lack of patience permeates Super 8; it might be the reason why Abrams felt compelled to add a monster. But even after he adds the monster, he can’t trust himself to keep the monster a monster. A dime-turn scene in the last fifteen minutes of the movie has Joe forge a psychic connection with the alien monster. “Bad things happen,” he says.
“Oh,” the alien monster replies, wiping the blood of slain innocents off his gnarly jaw. “You make a fair point. My apologies. Run along home now. I’ll just be on my way.”
Almost as if Abrams felt compelled to combat the nagging aftershocks of Reaganite cinema, it is the military that is ultimately painted as the “bad guys” in this film. No rah-rah patriotism here. While Spielberg was content simply to have Eliot and E.T. escape back to the extraterrestrial’s space ship, fleeing the men with guns (not flashlights, as the “director’s cut” would have you believe), parting on a heartfelt, warm goodbye, Abrams has his E.T. destroy the men he blames for his captivity, as well as some random townspeople. When E.T. got free, he just went home. When Cloverfield Jr. gets free, he makes like a Predator in a terrorist training camp… which creates a sticky, distasteful impression that, somehow, some way, all those cornpone Americans had it coming, because the damn air force was so mean to the poor, misunderstood alien.
I’m sorry, but if this alien — so intelligent and intuitive as to form an instantaneous bond of empathy and communication with a little kid — is unable or unwilling to distinguish between his genuine enemies (the armed guys in fatigues) and innocent bystanders (gas pump jockey, housewife in curlers), then maybe he’s not such a sympathetic antagonist. In fact, using him as a parallel for the main character does a disservice to Joe, who was dealing with his mother’s loss in an incredibly mature and sensitive way.
Abrams has a flair for spectacle, and the basic idea of the film’s beginning premise — kids dealing with grief and death as they make a zombie film — is rife with potential. Much of it is realized in the scenes in which filming takes place, especially the hectic scene on the train platform, handled with a realistic, chaotic urgency yet filmed in a style bordering on magic realism. Moments like this are where Super 8 shines, and though I would love to praise a film that grapples the difficulty of forgiveness and ultimately embraces it (like The Son), Super 8 doesn’t really earn it.
In his haste to make a unique, sideline perspective on a genre monster film, Abrams shortchanges the pain, excitement, and drama of adolescence as well as the scale and awe of an authentic monster mash. In other words, the film was just good enough that, when it failed to come together in the end, it made me angry. Though that’s a testament to Abrams’s potential as a filmmaker, it’s also a testament as to how far he has yet to go to realize his potential. If he’s going to outstrip his talents with his ambition, the very least he could do is stop slicing his frames into horizontal segments with those damnable lens flares. ☕